Fair or not, Pittsburgh Penguins cannot ignore goalie controversy

At some point, you just have to throw out what should happen, what took place in the past and even the acknowledgment of dumb luck and just accept the obvious truth in front of you. The Pittsburgh Penguins are giving Marc-Andre Fleury every opportunity to succeed (and therefore take ownership of his hopeful place as the team’s No. 1 goalie) and he continues to fall short of the mark.

Is it completely fair to Fleury to blame him for an ugly 1-5 start to the season? No, not really. Every loss isn’t his fault, after all, as the team in front of him must be held accountable for each defeat as well. Still, the bottom line is that the team earned a point in every game backup Brent Johnson started (4-0-1) while only earning two points in six Fleury appearances (1-5).

Whether the team plays more responsibly for Johnson or Fleury is the victim of bad luck or tougher matchups, it’s blatantly clear that the Penguins need to ride the hot hand rather than attempting to appease their $5 million man. To be fair to Fleury, I thought I’d take a look at each goalie’s games to see if Johnson is the beneficiary of random luck more than anything else.

Inside Johnson’s numbers

@ New Jersey (Oct. 11): Johnson stopped 30 out of 31 shots for the win. Pittsburgh scored three goals.

vs. Islanders (Oct. 15): Stopped 22 out of 24 shots for the OT win. Pittsburgh scored three goals.

@ Philadelphia (Oct. 16): Stopped 29 out of 30 shots for the win. Pittsburgh scored five goals.

vs. Ottawa (Oct. 18): Stopped 32 out of 34 shots for the win. Pittsburgh scored five goals.

vs. St. Louis (Oct. 23): Stopped 23 out of 24 shots for OT loss. Pittsburgh scored zero goals.

So, overall Johnson allowed only seven goals in five games, stopping a stunning 136 out of 143 shots. The only time he lost, he did it in overtime and the Penguins didn’t give him a single goal to work with. The Penguins allow an average of 28.6 shots per game against Johnson, so it’s not like he’s getting an in-net vacation either.

Let’s compare those numbers with Fleury’s. (Warning: these numbers might get ugly.)

Inside Fleury’s numbers

vs. Philadelphia (Oct. 7): Fleury stopped 24 out of 27 shots in a loss. Pittsburgh scored two goals.

vs. Montreal (Oct. 9): Stopped 24 out of 27 shots in a loss. Pittsburgh scored two goals.

vs. Toronto (Oct. 13): Stopped 10 out of 14 shots; he was pulled from this game. Pittsburgh scored three goals.

@ Nashville (Oct. 21): Stopped 21 out of 24 shots in OT win. Pittsburgh scored four goals.

@ Tampa Bay (Oct. 27): Stopped 26 out of 30 shots in loss. Pittsburgh scored three goals.

vs. Philadelphia (Oct. 29): Stopped 21 out of 24 shots in loss. Pittsburgh scored two goals.

As you can see, it’s pretty hard to give Fleury the benefit of the doubt by simply looking at the numbers. Fleury stopped 126 out of 146 shots, allowing 20 goals in six appearances. While Johnson’s lowest single-game save percentage was 91.7, Fleury did not produce a single game with a save percentage above 90 percent this season.

On top of that, the Penguins are actually playing equal or better defense in front of him, at least from a shots allowed standpoint. (While getting pulled early from that game against Toronto might skew the numbers, the Penguins only allowed 24.33 shots per game against “MAF.”) Johnson experienced marginally better goal support this season (the team scored 16 goals in his five appearances and 16 in Fleury’s six), but hasn’t had any other obvious advantages.

Does this mean that Johnson stands as a better long-term answer than Fleury? No, not unless these trends continue. Simply put, though, their numbers are night-and-day right now. Rather than making the most comfortable decision by not upsetting their big money goalie, the Penguins should make the wise choice and see how much longer Johnson will continue this hot start.

That’s my opinion, though. What do you think the Penguins should do? Should they turn their goalie rotation into a temporary “1a/1b” situation? Do you think the Penguins should give Johnson or Fleury most of the starts? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Goalie nods: Reimer returns to Toronto, but he won’t start and the Leafs (reportedly) won’t recognize him

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer reacts during a break in the first period of Toronto's NHL hockey game against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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James Reimer was drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2006, made his NHL debut four years later and, all told, spent six seasons wearing the blue-and-white, playing in over 200 games.

And tonight, he might get the spotlight on him for a couple seconds.

Reimer will back up Roberto Luongo when the Panthers visit Toronto, and it sounds like he’ll do so with minimal fanfare.

Per the Sun, the Leafs are “unlikely to officially recognize Remier” during the game, opting instead to “put the in-house camera on him for a few moments.”

(Now feels like a good time to mention Edmonton had a video tribute for Nail Yakupov.)

Reimer — dealt to San Jose at the deadline before joining the Panthers this offseason — has only played twice this year, making 25 saves in a shootout loss to Tampa in his debut, then allowing three goals on 22 shots in a loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.

And while he’s likely to receive little attention this evening, Reimer did play to a large media contingent on Wednesday, and had a pretty good quip about Auston Matthews taking his old No. 34 (“that’s brutal… I can’t believe he did that.”)

His former teammates, meanwhile, recalled a guy that battled hard and provided some good memories — specifically, backstopping the Leafs to the playoffs in 2013.

That, of course, led to a not-so-good memory:

For the Leafs, Frederik Andersen starts in goal.


Devan Dubnyk starts again as the Wild visit Buffalo. The Sabres will counter with Anders Nilsson, who continues to play with Robin Lehner (illness) sidelined.

Louis Domingue, who was called out by his head coach recently, goes back in goal for the Coyotes after Justin Peters started last game. He’ll go up against Steve Mason, who starts for Philly.

Jaroslav Halak returns to the Isles net after Thomas Greiss started the last two games. Marc-Andre Fleury is likely to go for the Pens.

— Tantalizing matchup in Montreal as Ben Bishop at the Bolts take on Carey Price and the Canadiens.

Petr Mrazek and the red-hot Red Wings — winners of five straight — look for No. 6 in St. Louis. Jake Allen is the likely starter for the Blues.

— It’s Antti Niemi versus Connor Hellebuyck as the Stars and Jets play in the second of a home-and-home series.

— Nashville used both Pekka Rinne and Marek Mazanec in last night’s 6-1 blowout loss to San Jose, so no word yet on who goes tonight in Los Angeles. The Kings will continue to ride Peter Budaj.

Sergei Bobrovsky, he of the .929 save percentage, gets the start for Columbus. He’ll be up against Martin Jones in the Sharks goal.

Vigneault explains decision to put McIlrath on waivers

New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault runs a practice at NHL hockey training camp Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, in Greenburgh N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
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The New York Rangers took a gamble today, placing defenseman Dylan McIlrath on waivers for the purpose of assigning him to the AHL.

While it wouldn’t be a surprise if McIlrath gets claimed, for GM Jeff Gorton and head coach Alain Vigneault, it was a decision that couldn’t be put off any longer.

“Gorts and I and our staff had a long talk last night after the game, and we just felt that at this time, Dylan needed to play,” Vigneault said this morning. “We all appreciate him as a person, he’s done everything that has been expected of him, and more. But on our team right now, he’s our eighth defenseman, and keeping him here and not having him play and the money going against the cap…”

Vigneault added that Gorton “looked around” in search of a trade, but obviously no deal was made.

“Selfishly, I hope he clears waivers and goes to Hartford and plays,” said Vigneault. “But if somebody would pick him up and give him an opportunity, I’d be very happy for him.”

McIlrath, meanwhile, held himself accountable for the situation. The big blue-liner has appeared in just one game this season, and he only logged 9:14 in it.

“I’m never going to blame this on the coaches,” he said, per Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post. “This was all about my play and not earning a spot in the lineup.”

Little (lower body) out another month, and that’s a big hole in the Jets lineup

WINNIPEG, MB - JANUARY 18: Bryan Little #18 of the Winnipeg Jets skates down the ice in third period action in an NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche at the MTS Centre on January 18, 2016 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
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Bryan Little hasn’t suited up for Winnipeg since the first game of the year, when he suffered a lower-body injury in a collision with Carolina forward Bryan Bickell.

Unfortunately for the Jets, he’s not expected back anytime soon.

“We’re two weeks out today, and we’re shooting for the end of November,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Thursday, while updating his team’s health situation.

To give an idea of how big a loss this is for the Jets, consider what Maurice had to say about Little’s absence, compared to missing unsigned d-man Jacob Trouba.

“[Trouba’s] not in the room, that has a big factor in terms of the distraction. It’s no different — well, it is different than Bryan. We’ve got a number of solid defensemen in our lineup.

“The Bryan Little injury is probably a bigger frustration than anything else, because that really changes the look.”

Little, 28, opened the year as Winnipeg’s No. 2 center, on a line with Drew Stafford and Shawn Matthias. As mentioned above, he was hurt in the first game of the season and — prior to the Bickell collision — set up the club’s first goal of the year, registering an assist on Matthias’ first-period marker.

When healthy, Little’s a productive contributor for the Jets.

He posted a career-high 64 points during the ’13-14 campaign, and a career-high 24 goals the season following. He’s also one of the club’s top faceoff men.

With Little out of the lineup, the Jets have rolled with Mark Scheifele, Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry and Alex Burmistrov at center.

It’s fair to suggest Little’s absence has played a big role in Winnipeg’s slow start to the year. It has just two wins from six games, but will look to get things back on track tonight when it welcomes Dallas to the MTS Centre.

It’s still early, but Preds looking nothing like Cup contenders

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 26:  P.K. Subban #76 of the Nashville Predators looks on after being defeated by the Anaheim Ducks 6-1 in a game at Honda Center on October 26, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The acquisition of P.K. Subban, after last season’s addition of Ryan Johansen, made the Nashville Predators a trendy preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup.

Six games into their schedule, however, and the outlook doesn’t seem so rosy. Last night’s 6-1 loss in Anaheim left the Preds with a 2-4-0 record, and one frustrated head coach.

“We have to be tougher to play against, just generally speaking,” said Peter Laviolette, per NHL.com. “[Even-strength] play wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Specialty teams just swung the pendulum tonight in the wrong direction, the shorthanded goals and the power-play goals were too much for any team. We have to do a better job just being harder to play against, defending our goaltender and defending our end better. We gave up too many chances.”

The Ducks scored three times on the power play and twice while shorthanded. Obviously, special teams was the big factor last night.

But like Laviolette noted, the Preds weren’t great five-on-five either, and they haven’t been great in that situation all season. In fact, per Hockey Analysis, they’ve been outscored 12 to 6 in five-on-five action. It’s their power play, which has converted 10 times already, that’s kept their start from being a serious disaster.

It’s only been six games, so there’s no need to panic quite yet. But the Preds play tonight in Los Angeles and Saturday in San Jose, so it’s not going to get easier any time soon.